How many years does one have to be a heavy drinker or alcoholic before alcohol toxicity causes neuropathy? Can a younger person with little history of alcohol abuse get nerve damage from a heavy alcohol binge?
The process by which alcoholism damages nerves is a slow one. It typically takes at least five, but usually ten to 20 years of heavy alcohol abuse before the first symptoms of alcoholic neuropathy will be apparent. About 50% of men who drink one alcoholic beverage or more daily for 20 years will experience signs of alcoholic neuropathy.
Can binge drinking cause alcoholic neuropathy?
Merely binge drinking for a few weeks or even months is not nearly enough to cause alcoholic neuropathy. That is, unless you have previously been an alcoholic for a decade or more. If that’s the case, a heavy alcohol binge can cause a sudden onset of the painful symptoms of neuropathy. For long-term alcoholics, a night, or a few days, of heavy drinking can cause enough alcohol toxicity in the blood to exacerbate symptoms.
I will give an example from my personal experience. I had been a heavy drinker for over 20 years when I first got the prickly, numb sensation in both hands. It came suddenly in the morning after a night of heavy drinking, and during a time when I wasn’t eating right and my blood sugar levels were too high. To this day, if I binge or drink too much, I will start to feel the symptoms creeping back.
Because developing alcoholic neuropathy is such a slow process, most young people don’t feel any symptoms, no matter how much alcohol they drink. The average age people get their first symptoms is during middle age. So if you are a young person experiencing signs of nerve damage, see your doctor for testing. Several other ailments can cause symptoms similar to alcoholic neuropathy.
What are the symptoms of alcoholic nerve damage?
Typically, the first sign of alcoholic neuropathy is a prickly, tingly, or numb feeling in the feet or toes that occurs suddenly, seemingly overnight. Less often the pain affects the hands first (as was my case). Usually, but not always, the pain is symmetrical in both hands and feet. Sometimes you feel it on only one side of the body. But in that case, it usually spreads to the opposite side in a short time.
If the afflicted does not stop drinking and seek treatment, the nerve damage will progress further up the arms and legs. It will eventually damage the autonomic nervous system, affecting muscle strength and motor movement. The nerve damage sometimes impacts the reproductive system as well. For men, this can mean erectile dysfunction and loss of sensation in the penis.
How does alcohol toxicity cause nerve damage?
Alcohol toxicity in the blood causes nerve damage via two processes. First, alcoholism is associated with chronic low levels of the B vitamins, which are vital to proper nerve function. B vitamins are water soluble, and are quickly flushed out of the system when the body processes alcohol. Supplementing the diet with a B complex or neuropathy support vitamin can be beneficial to alleviating neuropathy symptoms.
Secondly, alcohol toxicity in the blood damages myelin sheath, the protective covering around nerves. Over time, enough damage occurs to disrupt electrical transmissions between nerve cells.
If you are middle-aged or older and have a long history of alcoholism, it’s likely your symptoms are alcoholic neuropathy. But don’t despair or lose hope. I and many others have been through it. We have proven that nerve damage can be reversed. Changes in lifestyle and diet will be necessary. And of course, you have to stop drinking now.
Peripheral Neuropathy Treatment
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Photo credit: Keith Rowley, (CC BY-SA 2.0)